The other day, I was working at a community mental health center in eastern Washington, and it was my turn to teach the lesson for that day. In these lessons, we are allowed a large amount of free reign, and on this day I decided that I would start the day by asking each of the participants what they were grateful for.
Before going into what was said, I think it would be helpful to give a little background. The group that I lead is one comprised of adults, most over the age of 40. Some of the held manual labor jobs, some were criminals, some were lower management and some are severely mentally disabled and unable to hold a job whatsoever. What is interesting, however, is that they all come to this group for the same reason – so that they can improve their mental health. While it is partially from the lessons that these clients hope to improve their mental health, I believe that the most significant gains come from the simple fact that these clients are in a safe place, away from the usual dangers and triggers that the rest of the world almost constantly throws at them. The vast differences in their life experiences is something that, when I began, I thought would create a gulf between the clients, causing them to focus on what made them different and not on the things that they had the same.
What really caused me to pause on this day was when we started with our gratitude journal. Every day, before beginning the lesson that I had planned for the day, I start with a gratitude journal, asking the clients to tell me one thing that they are grateful for since the last time that we met. The answers usually are about family, the people who take care of them, football or their animals. While these are all good answers, they can become a little routine. This day, however, one of the clients stated that he was grateful for his mental illness. Not only was this a very unusual answer, but it was one that took a significant amount of introspection. Before I had a chance to ask this client more about what he meant, the statement was met with quite a bit of resistance by many of the other clients in the group. Everyone else had a very understandable distaste for their mental illnesses, as they had the understanding that it was these illnesses that caused their difficulties in life, and were the reason that they needed assistance in their lives.
After listening to their statements of doubt, I asked the client who had stated that he was grateful for his mental illness why that was the case. He gave no reason – he said that he did not know. A bit disappointing, isn’t it? Perhaps, however, it is better this way, at least for you and me. While it would be a bit too much to state that we all have some form of mental illness, I do not believe that it would be inaccurate to say that we all struggle with some form of inner demon. Depression, anxiety, addiction, whatever it may be, there is some struggle that we will have to grapple with, and this struggle against our demons can cause us quite a bit of pain; can cause us to resent those demons. What if, however, we learned, like the client, to be grateful for these demons, even without knowing why?